Disruptive Innovation and Newspapers

Some time ago I have already covered Clayton Christensen’s theory about disruptive innovation (click here to read it). The basic idea is that some innovations will appear as simpler, cheaper or even inferior solutions when compared to traditional technologies. In the early phase such innovations will serve a marginal or completely new market segment. Over the time, however, as the performance of the disruptive innovation improves (often faster than what is demanded by customers) it will be able address the mainstream market, displacing incumbents.

Many industries have witnessed the emergence of disruptive innovations. Consider the computer industry. When supercomputers appeared their performance was not even close to what mainframe computers could offer, hence why mainframe manufacturers did not spot the innovation as a threat. Over the years, however, supercomputers’ performance increased much faster than what customers were requiring, meaning that mainstream users started to switch from costly mainframes to the smaller and simpler supercomputers.

This very same pattern was observed recently with video rental services, telephony, photographic films, department stores, among others. What about newspapers? The appearance of online news services, web portals and other media platforms such as blogs and wikis clearly represent a disruptive innovation for the traditional newspaper industry. Will the likes of NY Times and WSJ be able to survive such disruption? According to Christensen the answer is “a resounding yes”.

In order to answer that question Christensen’s consulting firm Innosight carried out a project with the American Press Institute. Is his own words: “for a long time, newspapers stood by as readership slid. Print executives tried to answer the question: How can we convince more people to read our paper?. But the question has to be: What indispensable roles can we play in the lives of the consumers we want to serve?.”

I agree with most of the arguments presented, including that newspapers will need to develop new skills, tap the collective wisdom and build platforms to form communities. But I do not think traditional newspapers will be able to withstand the disruptive innovation. They will be able to survive only if they become disruptors themselves. That is, not fighting but rather embracing the disruptive innovation.

You can check the project’s website here.